By Hesham Hassaballa
I was blessed to spend a week on holiday in Paris, France. Among the many sights and sounds we experienced was Le Grand Mosquee de Paris. This is a must see in Paris, and it is very easy to get to: one block from the Place Monge Metro station.
As soon as I entered into the mosque’s brilliant courtyard, an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility took over me. Its beauty was breathtaking, and I could not help but feel completely at home, even though the last time I had been there was over twenty years ago.
Yet, among the many beautiful scenes that abound the mosque, I was taken aback by two plaques in a nondescript corner of the mosque. I could not read the French, but I was blessed to able to read the Arabic:
“In the Name of God: The Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. In memory of the Muslim soldiers who died for France…”
One plaque was for WWI, and the other was for WWII. It was amazing to see, and truly, it was just as amazing as the beautiful courtyard or the equally breathtaking prayer space inside. And these two plaques – silent but with tremendous dignity – highlight the important contributions that Muslims in France have made to French history and society.
And it made me lament the recent trend by some in the West to relegate Islam and Muslims to something that is foreign, strange, and thus dangerous. Le Grand Mosquee de Paris was built in 1920. And as the plaques highlight, there has been a Muslim presence in France and for France for decades.
The same goes with the United States: the Muslim presence in America is at least as old as the country itself, if not older. The Supreme Court has even honored the Prophet Muhammad as a lawgiver, with his image on a marble frieze. Muslims have been contributing to the success of America ever since its founding, and these contributions continue to this day.
Thus, when people angrily show up at local meetings to block the construction of a mosque, or now even a cemetery, it betrays an ignorance of the history of the country and of the true nature of the faith and its followers. Yes, there are those who truly hate Islam for what it is and Muslims for who they are.
But, there are so many more – legions more – who simply do not know better or are given information about Islam and Muslims from disreputable sources. This has been the case with Islam since the very time of the Prophet Muhammad. We must respond with kindness and truth, as the Qur’an says:
“But [since] good and evil cannot be equal, repel [evil] with something that is better and lo! he between yourself and he was enmity [may then become] as though he had [always] been close [unto thee], a true friend!” (41:34)
The area around those two plaques was being renovated while I was there, and such an endeavor is truly sacred. Of course, the prayer space and courtyard of Le Grand Mosquee are extremely important. Yet, just as important are those two, quiet nondescript plaques. Not only do they document important history, but they also loudly declare to the world that Muslims are a force for good and should not be feared.